Fellows | 22 May 2017

A Historian of the American West Shares Her Insight


By Ian Frazier


Patricia Limerick gave a talk in Burns, Oregon, near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, to both supporters and opponents of last year’s takeover.

Patricia Limerick, well-known historian of the American West, gave a talk at the community center in the town of Burns, Oregon, one evening not long ago with her heart slightly in her throat. Limerick belongs to the small category of historians who are occasionally recognized on the street, and she gives talks all the time. What made this one different was that Burns is the county seat of Harney County, home of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the site, last year, of a six-week takeover by armed protesters, who demanded that the federal government return the land—though to whom was not exactly clear. One of the occupiers was killed in the standoff. Limerick knew that her audience, about seventy-five county residents, included both supporters and opponents of the protest. The mood in the room seemed congenial, not tense, but she couldn’t be sure. A local man had told her about a past confrontation between the two sides in which many had likely carried firearms. He said he thought that if someone had dropped a book people might have started shooting.

Limerick wore a black Western-tailored shirt embroidered with turquoise and purple flowers, and a black skirt. Her hair is straight, parted on the left, and two feet long. When she was twenty, she happened to appear on a CBS news special having to do with a history project she put together in college, at the University of California Santa Cruz, that attempted to build bridges between students and senior citizens. When the interviewer asked about her ambition in life, she said, “To save the world.” She was a hippie then, and is not much less of one now, forty-plus years later. The University of Colorado’s Center of the American West, of which Limerick is the faculty director, has an official motto: “Turning hindsight into foresight.” She believes that history, skillfully applied and deeply understood, can save the world.

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